5 Tricks and Techniques That Elevate Flavor

I’ve been thinking lately about what makes my husband such an excellent cook.  Having watched him for several years, I’ve learned there are a few techniques he uses to get the best flavor out of any meal.  Let me share them here:

1) Lemon juice and salt are the two sides of a balancing scale.  If something is a bit too lemony, salt can help bring it back to taste.  If it’s a little too salty, lemon can bring the flavor back into balance.  If it’s a lot too salty, start over.

2) Skim the scum.  Whether it’s the bubbles that sit on top of your shorbat or the ones that rise up from your tomato sauce, the foamy stuff is actually the impurities working their way out of the food.  If you skim this stuff off the top of whatever liquid you’re cooking, those less than tasty bits don’t have a chance to work their way into what you eat.  Every time I add a new liquid ingredient to a soup or stew, I get some of this foamy stuff and I get rid of it. 

3) Brining makes it better.  We like our chicken skin crispy and our meat moist, and it’s hard to achieve that cooking the way we do without brining the meat first.  Lately we’ve taken to dry-brining (covering a chicken with salt and letting it sit a day in the fridge, then rinsing and drying it before we cook it), but wet brining works too.  What works for chicken also works for cucumbers and eggplant, which would otherwise give off enough water to over-thin some sauces. 

4) Buy fresh and local. The freshest, tastiest meat, veggies and dairy products come from local producers.  Why would I buy a lamb from New Zealand when I can get one from my colleague who raises them lovingly and organically?  Why would I import yogurt from abroad when I can get something just as tasty, without preservatives, from the Mennonite vendor at the farmers’ market?  Turns out it’s no more expensive and just as tasty to shop this way.

5) Almost every protein or veggie benefits from a rub down.  Rarely does a steak go on the grill, a chicken in the oven or a fish in a pan unless it has been lovingly massaged with a mix of olive oil and one of the many herb and/or spice mixes we rely on to elevate flavor.  The same goes for a lot of the starches and veggies we cook. Last week I tossed sliced sunchokes with a rub of olive oil, rosemary, garlic, salt, pepper and fresh thyme and roasted them until the skins were crispy and the flesh tender.  The week before I tossed them with olive oil and Penzey’s Moroccan Spice Mix.  In both cases, they were heaven on a platter. 

What techniques do you use to get great flavor?

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Cookie time!

At this time of year I am something of an involuntary baker. That’s not to say I don’t like baking, but rather to say I can’t help baking. I remember one year I was down with a cold, got up from a nap to get a glass of water and, next thing I knew, I was encircled by a cloud of flour and there were three dozen lace cookies on the counter wand I had no memory of how they got there.

My family’s favorite holiday treat is a Wafi Box. There’s a gourmet story in Dubai called the Wafi Gourmet that makes the most delicious assortment of baklava you could imagine in small, bite size pieces that pack a big flavor punch. Now, I love me a Wafi box as much as the next person, but my favorite Middle Eastern cookie is Mamoul, which is basically a semolina crust surrounding a heavenly date filling. They’re usually made in intricately carved molds, but mine were sacrificed to the moving gremlins, hence the need for a new strategy.

This year I’ve been jimmying around with a few recipes to come up with a Mamoul recipe I like that I can make in my mini muffin tin. It seems to work pretty well and, the longer they sit, the better they get. They’re a tad labor intensive, but worth it.

Crust recipe:

2 cups semolina flour
1 1/2 sticks of melted butter
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon of vanilla or, if you prefer it, rose flower water
1 teaspoon salt

Mix these ingredients together and let them sit at least overnight in the refrigerator so the semolina soaks up the butter and it all becomes the consistency of pie dough.

Filling recipe:

1 cup of date pieces from your local bulk food store
2 T. butter
1 cup of water

Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and cook on a low simmer until the dates have softened and the water seems to have all but entirely evaporated. You can leave the pieces whole, but if you like you can whazz them up in a food processor or with an immersion blender to turn them into a paste of uniform consistency. Let cool before using.

When you’re ready to make the cookies, take the dough out of the fridge and let it get to room temperature so it becomes pliable. With a mini ice cream scoop, portion out a scoopfull of dough into each muffin cup, then press the dough around the cup and up over the sides so the cup is full and there’s about a half inch of overlap all around. Spoon a teaspoon of date filling into each muffin cup full of dough, then pull the overlapping crust over the top of the date filling and pinch and prod it together to seal in the filling and make a flat top over the cookies.

Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes until just starting to brown. Let cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a cooling rack. Store in an airtight container.

These get better with age. The dough feels slightly sandy and is a lovely counterpoint to the rich, gooey date filling.

Variation: Mamoul are sometimes made with nuts instead of dates but I like these so much better I’ve never made the nut variety. Although walnuts, almonds or pistachios would be more common in the Middle East, these are pretty good with pecans too.

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An update of the non-culinary kind

As you can see, it has been a while since something new was posted. For several months now my Arabian knight and I have been in a sort of limbo. An odd confluence of circumstances left us both jobless and homeless for a time. Not to worry, we were lucky enough to be what I call country club homeless, living with a variety of remarkable family and friends across the country and even halfway around the world. The big downside was that much of that time left us living and cooking apart, hence the lack of culinary collaboration. We now have a job and a job offer between us and are about to be reunited, at least for a while, so expect new recipes to be coming soon and thank you for your patience and persistence with our culinary ramblings.

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Loobia: the healthy green bean casserole

Before meeting my husband green bean casserole was that back of the soup can label stuff that used canned green beans, canned mushroom soup, canned fried onions and a little milk.  Now, I’m as much a sucker for mushy, blood-pressure raising, bloat-inducing side dishes as anyone, but my husband has introduced me to a much healthier and just as tasty alternative.

Where he grew up,  green beans were the foot-long variety you find in Asian groceries and they were cooked in a pressure cooker until they surrendered any firmness they had left.  While this is also, not bad, I like my husband’s version better these days and you can use any green bean or haricot vert you find in the market.

1 lb. steak ( any cut of beef or lamb that responds better to grilling) chopped into one inch dice

3 cans of chopped tomatoes with juice

1 can of tomato sauce

juice from two lemons

One head of garlic, peeled and finely minced

salt and pepper to taste

Start by cubing the steak pieces and washing and trimming the ends off the green beans.  Cut the green beans into halves or thirds depending on how long they are.  You’re shooting for 3 inch pieces.  Salt and pepper the steak pieces then saute them until they are brown on all sides and remove to a plate.   Cover with foil to keep the steak warm.

In a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat add the garlic and green beans.  Saute for a few minutes, then add chopped tomatoes and tomato sauce.  Cover and cook for about ten minutes, stirring once after about five minutes.  Add lemon juice and correct salt and pepper to your taste.  Cover and cook for another five minutes, then open and stir again.  Continue cooking until the sauce is done.  You’ll know the sauce is done when you no longer taste any of the can taste from the tomatoes or the bitterness of the lemons.  Another way to say this is that the flavors have “married”, which means you don’t taste any of the individual ingredients, but rather a good mix of all of them.  At this point, add back the steak pieces and any juices that collected on the plate.  Stir until the meat is coated with sauce and warmed through.  Serve with basmati rice.

Variations: This dish works just as well with ground beef, sausage, turkey or lamb.  If you like or are trying to reduce your carb intake, you can keep the green beans whole, use Italian sausage links that you’ve sliced and sauteed until they are cooked all the way through, make the sauce the same way, then when serving sprinkle with your favorite salty cheese (parmesan, feta, asiago).  If you go this route, use one less lemon.

You could also use a cut of steak like flank or London broil, grill it, let it rest to redistribute it’s juices while you make the sauce, slice it and layer it over the beans and sauce.

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Salmon and Salsa Amba

Both my husband and I have fond memories of cooking and eating fish.  In his case a river fish called Gutan was typically split and mounted on stilts over a fire until its flesh was roasted and a smoky crust formed on the flesh, which I’m told was often the best part.  The closest we’ve gotten to this is visiting Beit al Baghdadi in the Deira neighborhood of Dubai.

When I was a child my family had part ownership in a farm on a spring-fed river called the Black where my father would fly fish for rainbow trout.  I have vivid memories of Dad sitting with his pocket knife outside the kitchen door cleaning the day’s catch in a bucket, then handing it inside to my mother who dredged it in flour, egg wash and cornmeal and tossed it directly into a cast iron skillet.

Recently we went to the Deira fish market in Dubai, which is a thing to behold.  The fresh catch of the day, whether hamoor, blue crab, squid, prawns, clams, sea bream, etc.,  sits nestled in ice on dozens of stainless steel stands.   Once you’ve chosen your fishmonger and made your purchase it is taken to a station where one pays separately to have the fish cleaned by the scores of men working at several long enameled tables lined up in a row behind the counter.  Though it’s impossible to tell who’s good at it and who’s not, the two or three men at the front of each counter call after each customer to come have his or her fish cleaned at their particular table.  After your catch has been cleaned, you can either take it home and cook it yourself, or take it to a third stand to be cooked by local chefs in one of several preparations available.  While you wait, if you’re lucky, you may get to sit on one of the five stools that make for an ongoing, slow motion game of musical chairs.  Alternately you can head to the shop down the hall for coffee, tea or a bottle of water.

Having spent several years in the Pacific Northwest, we mostly know our way around a salmon. My favorite preparation of this particular healthy fish is to simply grill it and serve with Salsa Amba, which is basically tomatoes mixed with mango pickles. I’ve never tried making mango pickles having found a jarred type I like immensely called Ship brand. To make the salsa, mix equal parts chopped mango pickles and chopped fresh tomatoes in a bowl and set aside so the flavors can marry while you make the rest of the meal.

To prepare the salmon we simply marinade it in salt, pepper, fresh lemon juice and a little olive oil for about 15 minutes, then either roast it in a 350 degree oven or grill it until almost cooked through. We serve it with a simple salad, the Amba Salsa and some basmati rice for a light, flavorful meal.


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Dubai Pecan Pie

After a separation of several months as we both looked for work on separate continents, my husband and I were finally reunited in Dubai for the holidays. We’ve been staying with extended family who have opened their homes and hearts in the most generous way, even going so far as to put up a real Christmas tree complete with ornaments and garland and to gather for a proper Christmas dinner of turkey with all the fixings. The entire event made me both deeply lonely for friends and family back home and deeply grateful for the company and affection of those surrounding me on this warm, sunny Christmas day in Dubai.

My husband has always been a big fan of pecan pie at the holidays. I suppose it makes sense because it’s the American treat that’s probably most like a middle-eastern sweet (which usually features some combination of dough, nuts and some sticky sweet to bind everything together). The problem this Christmas was, the local grocer in our high rise complex didn’t have Karo syrup or cane syrup, which I usually use to make pecan pie. Hmmm, what to do. I know, let’s eat something else and think about it.

The day before Christmas, as my husband, his cousins and I sat at the Dubai Marina having a hybrid American/Middle Eastern breakfast (scrambled eggs AND foull) one cousin was asking about date jam for his toast and instead got date syrup, called Dhibis. It turned out to be not only a great spread for toast (and I suspect would be an amazing substitute for maple syrup on banana walnut pancakes), it also made for a delicious substitute for corn syrup. The cousin who told me about it not only polished off the small container of Dhibis we got at the Marina, but also three slices of Dubai Pecan Pie.

This time I made my pie crust by hand, but of course any pre-made pie crust from your refrigerator section at the grocery will work just fine.

Basic Pie Crust

10 Tablespoons COLD butter, cut into cubes

2 cups flour

1 teaspooon of salt

5-6 tablespoons of ice water

Combine the butter, flour and salt together in a food processor, or with your hands or a pastry blender until the mixture is mostly incorporated but there are at least several lumps of butter the size of peas. This is what will make your crust flaky. Starting with three tablespoons of ice water, mix the water with the butter/flour mixture and stir to incorporate, adding water a tablespoon at a time until the dough just starts to clump together into a ball. Don’t overwork it or the pastry will be tough. It’s better to have too many crumbs than too few.

Turn the mixture out onto a piece of plastic wrap and use the wrap to bring to dough together into a disc about 6 inches across and an inch or so tall. Wrap tightly and let sit in the refrigerator for at least thirty minutes to cool and rest. When you’re ready for the crust, turn the disk out onto a floured board or counter, dust your rolling pin with flour (this particular night I used a wine bottle as no rolling pin was to be found) and roll it to a circle just a bit larger than the tin you’re baking in and about a quarter inch thick. Gently push (don’t stretch, push down) the crust into the tin and crimp the edges as you like. Now the crust is ready for the filling. (Side note: I’ve heard of a professional baker who uses vodka instead of water to make a flakier pie crust because the alcohol evaporates when you bake it. Haven’t tried it but if you’re feeling adventurous, let me know how it went.)

Here’s the recipe for the filling, adapted from several good pecan recipes I’ve found on-line and on the back of syrup bottles.

3 eggs

1 cup sugar (cane or demmerera)

1 cup Dhibis/date syrup

4 tablespoons of melted butter

1 cup of pecan halves (either whole or chopped. depending on how you like them)

Beat the eggs with the sugar until combined, then add the remaining ingredients, mix to combine and pour into a prepared pie or tart shell. Bake at 350 degree farenheit/180 celcius, for about 50 minutes to an hour until the crust has browned and the filling set. Cool and serve.

Variations: Though I was able to pay a small fortune for some pecans at the local Spinney’s, I realized walnuts would work equally well with the date syrup. Almonds would be too hard unless slivered and pistachios are best saved for other desserts.

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Preparing Veggies for Dolma

I’ve been asked how to prepare the onions and tomatoes for dolma, so when I made it recently my niece was kind enough to take some photos.  You’re going to need one sharp knife and one corer.   Here are some instructions.  Onions first.

Get large Spanish onions so you get the most stuffable parts.  Begin by cutting the top and bottom off of the onion as shown.


Next, cut a slice from the top to the bottom of the onion from one edge to the center of the onion.  If you think of it as a circle, you’re going to cut a radius into it.


Now pick up the onion and gently pry apart the first few layers.  This is the part that takes some practice. You want to open the layers without cracking them in half.  I usually grab about six layers and pry them gently apart with my fingers, then use my thumb to push the center out through the widest opening in the onion as shown.


At this point, I find it easier to begin peeling the inner layers out of the center of the outer rim one at a time.  I find I can curl one end in, making it release from the rest of the rim, then push it out the opening as I did the core.


Continue peeling until you have all the layers separated and discard the tough outer layers.  If you want even smaller onions to fill, you can pry apart layers in the core, but eventually they can’t help but break.  At that point, take what’s left of the core, cut it into large chunks and toss them in the bowl of a food processor.  Remember, you’re going to puree the onion centers and tomato innards to moisten the meat filling.


Now to the tomatoes.  You’ll start by cutting across the top of the tomato ALMOST all the way across, leaving about a half inch uncut so the lid stays attached to the base as shown.



Now take your corer and work your way around the edges of the tomato flesh, cutting out only the core and seeds.


When you’re done, you’ll have a hollowed out tomato and a leftover core and some juice and seeds.


Put the leftover core, juice and seeds into the food processor bowl with the leftover onion centers.  Then puree the tomato and onion centers into a slightly chunky mixture you will add to the meat, rice and spices you use to stuff the dolma.


There you go!  Now you have the veggies to stuff and the puree to mix into the stuffing.  


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